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« The Year of Jam | Main | The Transatlantic Tomato Chase »
Wednesday
Oct082008

All Spiced Up


Years ago, I told you about my spice bowl. You remember, that big glass bowl I stored my collection of spices in for the better part of seven years; the bowl that I was too embarrassed to show to any of my friends, and which filled my kitchen with a thick cloud of nose-tickling spice dust whenever I opened the cupboard it lived in? Yeah, that one. The one that was - despite the inconvenience of never being able to find what I was looking for, and of poorly-closed bags of cinnamon and sesame seeds slowly leaking their contents into the bottom of the bowl, and of frequently opting to buy a new bag of something rather than go through the effort of seeing if I already had it - the best system for storing and organizing spices I could find.

The problem was - and still is, as far as I can tell - that people who design spice racks aren't actually people who cook. If they were, they would certainly know that a measly sixteen or twenty bottles aren't going to cut it. I mean, I have single recipes that call for that many spices! My bare-bones minimum, the number I couldn't even think of living without, is probably somewhere around thirty, and once you start adding the esoteric ones - the berbere, sumac and kalonji seeds, for example - well, you can see the problem. I suppose I could have bought three or four spice racks and stacked them side by side, but not only did I not have the space to do that, I didn't want to financially support those clueless spice rack designers by buying their products in the first place.

When we moved back to the US, though, I was determined to find a better solution. I was sick and tired of that stupid bowl, but I was afraid that if I didn't find a dedicated storage device the problem would just migrate to a drawer or shelf somewhere. My first thought was one of those trendy magnetic racks - you know, a set of clear-top magnetized tins that stick to a sheet of metal on your wall, which in theory can expand to accommodate as many tins as you need - but after nearly fainting dead on the floor of a well-known Seattle kitchenware shop when I looked at the price of one, I decided I was going to have to keep looking.


The solution I finally stumbled upon took some lateral thinking, a lot of scouring the internet, and few days of crossing fingers that everything I found would actually fit together, but in the end it is the most utterly perfect spice rack imaginable. And did I mention it only cost a fraction of what a comparable magnetic rack would have? The rack itself is an old printer's tray from ebay, you know, one of those that used to hold type blocks for the press. The trays come in all shapes and sizes, but the one I was lucky enough to find has fifty-five - count 'em, fifty! five! - uniform rectangular compartments, each of which is just about perfectly proportioned to hold one of these four-ounce square tins. The fit is not exact, of course, and the tins stick out nearly an inch beyond the edge of their compartments, but a little foam tape here and there has filled the major gaps and seems to do a good job of keeping everything snug and tight - snug enough, even, for me to hang the whole thing on the wall, an arm's length away from the stove, where every night I'm rediscovering the joy of adding pinches and smidgens without needing a half-hour's advance planning.

In fact, it's working out so well that I'm tempted to open a spice-rack design business myself and start producing them to order. Hmm, do you think there'd be any takers?

p.s. Surely I'm not the only one to hit my head against the wall for so long about spice storage - what do you guys do?

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    Response: Organised spice
    As both a wanton foodie and cook and a woodworker who specialises in cabinets and containers there aren’t many things I am more passionate about.

Reader Comments (97)

ooooh. that is utterly wonderful!
i had my grandpa build me a fantastic mobile spice box, but sadly, my spice collection was too large for it even before it was finished. now i have the box, a camera bag (for spices that start with "c", naturally), a salt basket, and an overflowing miscellany basket. all serviceable solutions, but when taken as a whole, not as elegant as the printer's tray (which is super cool on its own anyway....)

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterteal

Oh, Melissa, this is so funny. I just moved back to Budapest (after almost 5 years in Brussels) and had the very same problem with the spice rack+tins. I actually just blogged about it (unfortunately in Hungarian). I took those magnetic tins (but without the rack), they were very cheap in Belgium. Yours are beautiful!

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterZsofi, Chili&Vanilia

I bought a bunch of small glass jars from IKEA and filled them with spices, they fit perfectly in the drawers of my kitchen. I sadly also have a box filled with less used spices and big glass jars of much used spices (like ginger, cinnamon, mustard seeds,etc). I would love to consolidate all in one place neatly labeled. I've considered one of those shoe racks on the back of my pantry door, but so far nothing. I love love love your idea. I however do not have any wall space in the kitchen, seriously- none (yep small kitchen).

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSusy

I'd buy it! I used to have a whole mishmash of random bottles stuffed into various drawers and cupboards, but a couple of years ago I found a REALLY pretty spice rack at dean and deluca in NYC which had test tubes of the spices and came with a 1 tsp long metal spoon. It's got about thirty spices, some of which I never touch, so an assemble-on-my-own rack would probably make a LOT more sense for me, but hey this gets me through the day for now.

I love what you've done though, and now I'm considering doing the same thing and chucking out my spice rack!

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterw.

I don't have a rack; I have a spice cupboard. We bought our house from my MIL, and when she lived here, she had two lazy susan turntables in one of the cupboards with her spices. I've continued to use that (though not the spices - they were all ancient) and just refill bottles with spices I've bought whole and in bulk. I ran out of space on the turntables, and now have bottles and jars stacked completely on the upper shelf as well. Your method is a lot more aesthetically pleasing, though I don't have any free wall space where I could mimic it (hurray original 1960's kitchen).

I try to buy whole spices when possible; usually from indian or asian grocery stores. I'll then grind what I can use in 2-3 months and keep the rest in the basement where it's dark and a bit cooler.

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDe in D.C.

Melissa, your spice rak is gorgeous. If you ever start the business, let me know, I'll be your first customer (given that your company will ship to europe!).

xx fanny

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterfanny

I would have purchased your spice rack if it had been around when I did my kitchen remodel! But now I have 3 smallish drawers with spice inserts, kind of like the one here: http://www.kitchenshelves.com/spice_insert.htm
(Each insert in my cabinets will hold 24 McCormick-sized jars.) I purchase seasonings and spices from a local bulk food store and refill McCormick glass jars. I got some of the jars from grocery store purchases when I was first married, and many of them from a yard sale. And below my nice, neatly organized drawers, i have the "deep" drawer which holds all overflow - packets I buy on a whim, things that are too big for the 2 oz jar (like a packet of za'atar, or sesame seeds, or...) -- kind of the equivalent of your bowl!

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTricia

beautiful rack love the organization!!

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterkat

Your spices are gorgeous.

In addition to my cabinet of bags (including about 12 oz. of roasted cumin and a pound of pink Hawaiian salt) and big bottles, I use a rack we made out of an old cassette storage thingy found in the boyfriend's garage stuff - read about it here if you'd like. It's nice, because I can use all the weird-shaped jars and bottles I've collected here and there.

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterrose

Currently I use:
-2 wall mounted acrylic racks that hold 12 bottles each
-one of those expandable shelf things that currently has about another 30 bottles currently
-a dry erase magnet on my fridge to track bulk items I have to refill the other 50-odd bottles
-a dry erase magnet on my fridge to track my dried peppers that are in bags so not out with the bottles.

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commenternicole

Oh, spices. So tricky! I have a circular rotating spice rack from Crate and Barrel that holds my 16 most used spices on the counter. The others are in a spice cupboard next to my oven. The refills of all my spices are in a paper bag in my pantry and I HATE rifling through it to find what I need. So much so that I often just re-buy what I need rather than trying to find it in there.

We lived in London for a year and when we returned home (to Seattle!), I had to leave every food related item there. I re-bought all my spices at Market Spice and was shocked when they totalled up to over $100! I am a woman who needs her spices!

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDana

Ah! What a necessary post. I, too, have suffered through years of Spice Bowl Syndrome, and even now I have a few remnants of cinnamon smuggled in from a Provence market, or caraway seeds from Reading Terminal Market in Philly, tucked away in neatly labeled plastic bags that always fall between the tines of our metal spice "rack" (really a drawer-like mechanism that is completely antithetical to any culinary endeavor). In my last abode we kept the spices in a drawer, which seemed like a good idea except whenever we closed said drawer a bit too hard and all the bottles went flying to the back, ruining my preciously, precariously neat order. I found what seemed like a good spice rack on the way to catch the bus home one day, and carted it all the way back with me, and painstakingly painted it, only to find that it did not, in fact, hold spice jars (the openings were too short) but maybe I could use it for, erm, a place to pile the bags? We have bunches of those metal containers on our fridge, but by "bunches" I really mean "eight", which is obviously not enough to do any noticeable damage on my bag collection (and besides, how would I go about prioritizing which eights flavors are lucky enough to earn a place in a tin??). My godmother had a spice rack built into the inside of one of her cabinet doors, which I think is brilliant but still not quite accessible enough for my tastes. I think your idea is brilliant -- if you do go into the spice rack business I'll be your first customer.

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commentercmoore

Hahahaha! I have a spice box, I know exactly how you feel! You have indpired me to at least look for something else!

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLisa-Marie

That is fantastic! I use small glass ouzo bottles and keep them in a large cupboard.

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterFoodJunkie

That's a great idea. I have a shelf in one of the kitchen cupboards that contains a cake box full of random jars, tins, and packets and then a mess of more frequently used spices that are permanently nearer the front of the cupboard. Your solution looks great but I fear I am too messy for anything to work as a long term solution!

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGemma

Oh please make the spice racks! I dream of having something like that for my spices. My 60+ jars of spices take up the same amount of cupboard space as my everyday plates/bowls/salad plates but in the space closest to the stove. Technically it is in abc order left to right, but it's not when you have so many.

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay

Hi Melissa,

Just wanted to write and tell you how much I love your blog! And yes, if you made spice racks like this for sale, I would happily purchase one from you.

I hadn't checked your blog in awhile, so I didn't know you had moved back to the U.S. We just returned from the Seattle area and spent quite a bit of time on Bainbridge Island, in fact! We stayed with my friend's aunt and uncle and it is such a lovely island. We also hit the Bloedel Reserve on the island, a bit of Seattle, the lavender region of Sequim and the Olympic Peninsula, Victoria, and over to Spokane, all in that one trip! I just posted a bunch of photos from our trip below.

http://cindydyer.wordpress.com/2008/09/page/2/

and more on this page:

http://cindydyer.wordpress.com/2008/09/

I wish you the best with your creative endeavors. Love the photography on your blog, too! Now put down the camera and get to work on my spice rack! ;-)

Cindy

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCindy Dyer

I order everything from Penzeys and use their jars. Then, I re-order what I use most of in bulk and re-use the jars. My husband built spice racks and installed them inside the cupboards. I have four, but I could use at least four more! He based the design on the thingy that hold bibles and hymnals stuck to the back of the pews. He used molding and stained them to match the cupboards. They are each 11 1/2 inches long.

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

Oh...and I keep a large box filled with the bags of bulk spices, salts and dried peppers downstairs in cool/dry storage.

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

What a beautiful spice rack! I especially like the containers because they have wide openings, large enough to fit all types of spoons and measuring devices. Nice way to recycle an old type case, too!

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commentersm

What a terrific idea, I am off to see if I can now track one down for myself.

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

Beautiful solution! I have many many spices in a wide assortment of jars and packets that were originally relegated to one shelf, but have spread to two, and are randomly stacked on top of each other. I used to cook a lot, and collected spices from everywhere. My collection makes me a little sad these days, because it's getting a bit old (and in serious need of a decent storage solution). I've got a 4yr old now, and 8month old twins, and find my cooking has become (by necessity) far simpler (and less spicy). Looking forward to revamping my collection one day, and also having the time to break out my cookbooks and devote an afternoon to preparing a feast for a dozen friends.

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjo

as u very well know i m not a foodie so therefore kind of an intruder on ur blog:) but i do know what sumac is ,hihi... however i love the fact that since u moved back to the states u r venturing into interior design blogging, (i would love to c more photos from that adorable little cottage of yours), ur spice rack is great, n sooo u, i will happily stock it when (sometime, maybe) i open my own shop... n as u know in norway everything is expensive so u could make some bucks selling it through me:)

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commentergoogs,

ikea and speciality bottles. my bottles and tins and containers will never match. i have three rubbermaid boxes full of spice bottles/containers. probably close to a hundred plus. a lot of it are spices i purchased when i went to india...they are ayurvedic/medicinal as well as spices. i also have a vast collection of dried herbs(drives the cats crazy...the valerian and catnip boxes stay in the bathroom..did you know that valerian has the same effect as catnip on cats? only problem is that it stinks and it will also attract rats/mice....folk tales say that the pied piper used valerian to drown the rodents!!) and i keep my spices and herbs together. it is a mishmash of kitchen stuff, ingredients for homemade cosmetics and medicinal/ayurveda herbs, roots etc. i am always on the lookout for one of those apothecary type cabinets with personality.....personality being the keyword..

love your idea. also...i buy a lot from speciality bottles too! i love how you zeroed in on them as soon as you landed in the states. good call!

October 10, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterfaustianbargain

yes please, I hope you will go into business - your rack is just lovely to look at - my spice shelf is quite unsatisfactory but I am not sure I have the room for such a shelf in our kitchen - the best solution I have seen is a draw with the tins all labelled on top - works well for a friend

October 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJohanna

That is a very good-looking spice shelf - and I'd definitely take one (though I'd need a lighter shade of wood for me kitchen. Khmmm). :D

October 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPille

Gorgeous! I'm in the process of house hunting. As soon as I find a place I'm going to place an order with you!

October 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSally

The printer box is brilliant. I currently have a 6'shelf over my work table. Shelf is 4" wide. It holds 6 10" metal baskets with handles (from Ikea for on of their organizing systems). Each basket holds a type of spice-salts, peppers, mixtures, baking, savory, misc. The handle on each basket makes it easy to pull down. Ages ago I bought 2 boxes of small metal containers (originally intended for wedding favors on clearance). I would love to use those tins and your printer box idea.

October 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJane

I would be first in line to buy your spice rack. Currently mine is in a mini tierd rack (sort of like the steel kitchen racks you see in restaurants) with bottles and jars lined up. This doesn't help for spices in packets though. They are just sort of piled up together. Sigh. I need your spice rack!

October 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMrs. L

Wow, now that is some organization!

October 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHilary

Over my lifetime I had ongoing struggles with spice storage and I've had many ideas that I've tried, spent a fortune on, and then given up. About 15 years ago, I bit the bullet and emptied two kitchen drawers next to the stove that are deep enough to hold spice jars. I no longer rebottle anything or refill -- it was too time consuming and the jars were too small -- it also helps not to have to clean those reusable jars that seem to attract dust and grease on a rack. I just stand the bottles upright in these two drawers and label the tops,they don't fly around when I close the drawer because they are full. I keep things that come in bags (sesame seed,sea salt, cinnamon sticks,etc.)in a cabinet right next the stove, neatly bundled into a $1 store plastic shoe box or plastic crate. I also keep extracts in one of those and baking things in another. In fact, I also use square plastic bins with flip lids in my bathroom closet labeled nails, hair, makeup, feet, first aid, cold, etc. Saves tons of time when cleaning the closet and the bottles and containers stay clean AND I can find everything immediately. I have larger bins on the top shelf to hold extra soap, shampoo, conditioner, etc. Nothing stands alone out in the open, so nothing gets pushed back or "lost". I have the neatest closets in America because I'm the laziest housekeeper.

October 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDiane

I still haven't solved my spice problem - currently they're partly on a shelf (and frequently crash onto the cutlery tray due to overcrowding), partly in a show box, and partly in another cupboard - which means that I don't really know anymore what spices I actually own let alone use all of them...

I might need to copy your gorgeous spice rack - unless you do decide to produce and ship to Australia!

October 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterEva

I'd most likely buy something of that design. I'm tired of having these two plastic baskets of spices all mingling in taste and smell into something strange.

October 11, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermalka lev adom

Your solution is wonderful, and if you go into business with them, I will be one of your first customers.

My own semi-solution is a simple one, and has worked well for me after years of frustration. It only works, though, if you can spare 2 kitchen drawers for the project. Almost every spice I have is laid flat in a glass jar (the one it came in, or an extra, empty one, relabeled), in one layer in a waist level drawer. I can see all the labels, and though rearrangements are sometimes a little figgety to get everything back in after cooking, it is mostly very, very simple.

Anything I use alot of, and buy in bulk, is stored in a plastic bag on a shelf, to refill the empty glass jar. This is slightly less convenient.

Extra fresh herbs, being dried live in an untidy bowl on top of the fridge. The idea is that after they dry, I should put them in a labeled jar. Ha.

It is an imperfect system, but much better than any of my previous arrangements. I agree about the spice rack mfgs. They cannot possibly cook on a regular basis.

October 12, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterlindy

Melissa, this is amazing!! I agree; spice rack designers don't use spice racks. I have one rack on my counter, one in the cabinet, and the jars that don't fit in either place scattered around the kitchen. I LOVE this idea. I'm going on eBay right now. I'm really enjoying your blog! I can't wait to visit again!

October 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMy First Kitchen

How are the tops on your containers? I'm afraid of anything that doesn't have a screw...if it's a pull-off top, I would pull too hard and the contents would spill!

October 12, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermaggie

Velcro on the wall. Velcro on the bottom of your spice tin. Label on the top. Done.

October 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

Happy birthday, Melissa! (And sorry for being a day late!)

October 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPille

Ahh.., another post from me to alert your readers to my giveaway! In the spirit of spices, too!... http://warmbunny.blogspot.com

October 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

Go ahead with that spice-rack design business and please put me on top of the list as one of your customers. ;-)

Have fun at the dinner for Marcella Hazan. Sounds like it will be lovely.

Paz

October 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPaz

Umm, bags and bottles, and jars on a cabinet shelf, and yes they do get everywhere, and whats worse is a bottle of honey leaked in there too. So yeah thats a disgusting mess, hidden behind closed doors. I know I need to do something about it, but I just keep finding better things to do with my time and money.

October 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCourtney

Oh, this has been the bane of my existence for over 13 years. I could never figure out either why there weren't more options for spices. Spice drawer inserts and turn tables are no solution if you have more then a couple of dozen spices. Yours is a great idea.

You actually got me thinking again about this problem. I don’t have wall space after my remodel to do what you did but I have some deep drawers that I can see having layers of spices trays in alphabetical order. I'll need to do some looking.

You didn't mention where you found the tins, they are very cute, can you share?

October 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterIceTeaForMe

I wish I had the space for your spice rack. In April I started eating less and cooking more; partially to save money and partially to lose weight. To that end, I now have countless items on my kitchen countertops especially spices. My spice cabinet, which is divded between sweet and savory, is step on mini steps making it fairly easy to see everything. I don't have any space for anything!. But, I am now inspired to redesign, again, my kitchen island and to include a spice rack. Thanks for your blog, you write beautifully and your photos are terrific.

October 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLiz in NYC

I really appreciate this post! I've been trying to find a solution for the new spices I acquired while traveling this summer, and am glad to see you've already done the internet research! I might but some of those cute containers... thanks! now we'll have to see what use all those spices get put to...

http://www.rootingforfruit.com

October 14, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjenny

I had the exact same problem, I was owning lots of spices but didn't feel like shelling out a fortune for "proper" spice boxes, so I bought 30 tiny jam jars for 10 bucks. The lid fits closely, and they fit into a spice rack that can be bought for cheap everywhere. I'm quite satisfied for now :)

October 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterÉlena

My husband remodeled our kitchen and gave me an island across from the stove. The top drawer is for utensils of all kinds for food prep and the second is for spices, herbs, pre-made rubs/sprinkles, etc. The drawers ar 35 inches wide!! Both drawers are about 3 or 4 inches deep so I can't lose anything. Then he added wedge-shaped thingies so the bottles and jars tilt a little. I just love that everything is in full view. Should I nominate DH for Man of the Year?

October 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCarolQ

Love the spice rack! I'd buy one!

October 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMichelanie

Now, where can I find those little square tins?

October 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJosie

Wow, that's lovely. I have multiple tiered spice racks in a cupboard, but it never stays organized because none of the bottles are uniform and I can never find things.

You inspire me, but I'm not sure I'll have the ambition anytime soon :)

October 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKimberly

Is it wrong that this post turns me on? My heart is beating a mile a minute. I love love love to be organized, and I have forever tried to figure something out for my spices.

I am not really a fan of the "way-to-expensive" magnetic ones.

I say for sure go ahead and open up a spice-rack design firm, I will be one of your first customers! Anything would beat my 60+spices that are merely stored in labels (and alphabetized) clear plastic containers.

Really great thanks for sharing.

October 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdawn

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